Yale Course Critique (A Brief History)

David Bookstaber was a senior editor of the Yale Course Critique

Spring cleaning my paper files I found copies of the Yale Course Critique from when I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. I wrote for that publication, served as a department coordinator, and was a senior editor 1998-1999.

The Yale Course Critique was a student production, affiliated with the Yale Herald. At the end of each semester, volunteers collected paper surveys and, for those courses with sufficient responses, aggregated ratings and summarized feedback in a 3-4 paragraph blurb. We printed a few thousand copies (sponsored by ads) and distribute them in dining halls at the beginning of each semester when students were trying to figure out which of the ~1,000 available Yale University courses to enroll in.

When I first encountered the Yale Course Critique I knew this was my kind of project: Collecting and disseminating data to help improve peoples’ ability to make important choices? And the university didn’t support this? Sign me up!

But why, I wondered out loud, wasn’t the University itself doing this? Most professors and departments distributed survey forms to students at the end of the semester. Only some agreed to share those with the Yale Course Critique. For those that didn’t, we had to solicit student feedback separately – in dining halls, and even posting volunteers outside the larger lectures to distribute and collect our survey forms from students.

I became a crusader for the cause. First as a “department coordinator” I tried (with some success) to convince individual professors and department heads to voluntarily share their surveys with us. As a senior editor I aggressively lobbied leaders in the Yale College Faculty to make sharing survey data a university policy. We did not succeed in that before I graduated in 1999, but I just spent some time researching this and found that by April 2002 the (student) Yale College Council passed a resolution requesting the university to “create a comprehensive online course critique,” and by November 2002 the Yale College Faculty unanimously agreed.

There has been some subsequent intrigue: By 2014 Yale College, now in full control of the data, tried to limit its use. They threatened students who summarized it on a separate website. In response to that another enterprising student, Sean Haufler, wrote a browser app that produced the summaries directly in client browsers.

I couldn’t find much history of the Course Critique. There is mention of one in 1969. Another shows up in 1985 with a note that none had been published since 1982. The “Yale College Course Critique” I joined appears to have been revived in 1993: The hardcopies in my archive show Volume 3(#2) dated September 1996, through Volume 6(#1) dated January 1999. Not much was captured online. Here are are few pages from fall issues in 1996, 1997, and 1998:

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